Early Doors

United dish out 2-0 thrashing

Early Doors

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In the build-up to last night's Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester United, Schalke defender Christoph Metzelder said: "We have to be realistic. We will not score five against Manchester United." Well, when you're right, you're right.

The side that put seven goals past defending champions Internazionale in the last round were humbled by United in Gelsenkirchen en route to sealing as commanding a 2-0 first-leg lead as you are ever likely to see in a Champions League semi-final.

United continually dissected the German side with all the cold yet bloodthirsty efficiency of a biology student before an anaesthetised frog with scalpel in hand.

Such was the insipid display of Schalke that they may as well have had Alfredo di Stefano up front for all the contribution their own former Real Madrid striker, Raul, was allowed to make. It was the worst performance in the last four of a cup competition since, er, Bolton against Stoke in the FA Cup 10 days ago.

That match at Wembley finished 5-0, and it would have been a similar story in Gelsenkirchen were it not for goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. The Germany international announced just a week ago that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season, and it seemed as though his defenders were getting their own back by leaving him unguarded against the United firing squad.

Yet somehow, despite a barrage from United's front line, Neuer managed to at least keep things interesting for over an hour, prompting Alex Ferguson to lavish praise on a player he has had his eye on as a replacement for the retiring Edwin van der Sar for some time.

"I think in my time at United this was the finest display of goalkeeping against us. I'm sure there were other feats but tonight we saw a very good one," said the United boss, so caught in the afterglow of his team's ruthless performance that he temporarily managed to banish Ludek Miklosko from memory.

What with Neuer being a top player in Germany, Bayern Munich inevitably have first dibs on the 25-year-old. On the same day as the keeper's tearful press conference announcing his imminent departure from the club he has been a part of for 20 years, Bayern president Uli Hoeness said: "Where there is a will there is a way. We hope he will come this year and if not this year then he will come next year."

Schalke certainly seemed to have no will and no way against United, rendered into a stupor as much by the occasion as their opponents. They may have only shipped two goals in the end, but it is nigh on impossible to imagine how they turn things around at Old Trafford next Wednesday.

Spare a thought for ITV who, after being saddled with Tottenham trying to overturn a four-goal deficit against Real Madrid in the last round, have now got another European damp squib on their hands.

Still, if United can replicate that sort of performance again next week then it should still make for compelling viewing. Wayne Rooney played with the sort of freedom and exuberance reminiscent of his early days as England's bright new hope, and his burgeoning partnership with Javier Hernandez will give everyone associated with the club cause to hope they can become their most effective front two since Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. Well, everyone except Dimitar Berbatov, obviously.

While there had been plenty of pre-match talk about Raul, it was another veteran who made the breakthrough. Ryan Giggs equalled Raul's record of scoring goals in 15 different Champions League seasons. His 67th-minute opener came after he had set up each of United's previous four goals in Europe, and it saw him usurp Filippo Inzaghi as the oldest ever goalscorer in the competition.

Antonio Valencia continued to show that his return to fitness as United hit peak form is not coincidental, and even Michael Carrick looks to have fully foisted the tag of United Midfield Pariah on to cyber-bullying victim Darron Gibson with another effective performance.

At the back, United's defence may have had much of the night off, but becoming the first club to record six away clean sheets in a single Champions League campaign is no fluke. As for Van der Sar, his final game is now odds-on to be the Wembley final after recording a joint-record 13th semi-final appearance in the competition.

All in all, it was a top night's work from a side coming good at just the right time. Arsenal must be relishing their visit to the Emirates on Sunday.

- - -

Tonight sees the beginning of the other semi-final, between Real Madrid and Barcelona. It is 'El Clasico: Part III' - and this time it really is personal.

Real boss Jose Mourinho's whole 'mind game' shtick and the media's obsession with it has long since worn thin with Early Doors, but his latest goading efforts ahead of tonight's first leg at the Bernabeu have had the surprising effect of seemingly unsettling his usually unflappable opposite number.

After Mourinho had cheekily laid the bait by saying "Pep is the only manager in world football to complain about referees getting decisions right," the Barca boss could not help but respond.

"In here (Real Madrid's press room), he is the chief, the f***ing man," Guardiola retorted. "In here he is the f***ing man and I can't compete with him.

"If Barcelona want someone who competes with that, then they should look for another manager. But we, as a person and an institution, don't do that."

Doubtless such an uncharacteristic outburst will be seen as another psychological victory for Jose, but this match and this tie will not be won on the back pages, but on the pitch. Real have gone from being drubbed 5-0 to beating them in their last meeting via a 1-1 draw. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the third chapter of this unique sequence.

Still, it can't do ED's Clasico office sweepstake hopes any harm.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I'm extremely touched by all the messages and by the reaction of people throughout the world of football. It has been overwhelming actually. I'm especially grateful to the Villa fans for their genuine concern and encouragement and to the fans of clubs up and down the country. There has been a groundswell of good will and I appreciate this so much." - Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier thanks well-wishers for their words of kindness after being admitted to hospital last week suffering chest pains. Doctors believe the 63-year-old should be fit enough to be discharged in the next three or four days.

FOREIGN VIEW: "There is no doubt that turf wars have damaged English football and the FA is probably in a weaker spot than any other FA in Europe - probably the result of the overwhelming power of professional football especially as expressed by the Premier League and Football League. In other countries there is a more balanced situation. In most other countries the professional game has a minority position." - William Gaillard, one of UEFA's top officials, has branded the FA as the weakest national association in Europe due to the dominance of the Premier League.

COMING UP: Follow live coverage of Real Madrid v Barcelona at 19:45, plus there is also Fulham v Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League at 20:00.

Jim White, Andy Mitten and Arsene Wenger will be filing their latest blogs, and Neil Warnock will be the latest manager to answer our quick-fire '60 seconds' questions.

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